There is an Eluvium album called Talk Amongst the Trees. I love it, though I am rarely awake when I listen to it, which isn’t to say it isn’t enjoyable while awake. Talk Amongst the Trees is perhaps the strongest showcase for Eluvium’s patience and attention to detail, never more evident than on 17-minute centerpiece, “Taken.” What begins as an innocuous, albeit gorgeous, guitar pattern ever so gradually swells into a monolith of soft distortion. The song’s length, though intimidating, is purposeful. It’s reminiscent of what Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan (though he was talking about his own music) recently described as “a moment that feels like it could go on forever, and that you kind of want to go on forever.”
I can’t say I was as enamored with the follow-up record to Talk Amongst the Trees, 2007’s Copia. Eluvium (the moniker of choice for Matthew Cooper) was clearly eager to expand, and chose to do so using a variety of strings and horns. It was by no means poorly composed or executed, just simply not what I hoping for. Similarly, I was not filled with optimism when I heard that the newest Eluvium album, Similes, would incorporate percussion and that Cooper would be singing. Judging by Similes’ opening two tracks, Cooper was just as nervous about this new direction as I was.
Let’s start with the newly added element of percussion; it’s pleasant and imbues Cooper’s compositions with a heretofore absent propulsion, though I would hardly call this music “driving.” Mostly, Cooper relies on gentle clicking augmented with some delicately added reverb to imply more motion than his work has previously implied. It’s largely unobtrusive and a nice touch, if a little timidly applied.
That last sentence could just as easily apply to Cooper’s singing. It’s difficult to tell if Cooper has an incredibly limited range and doesn’t want to embarrass himself, or if he’s simply using his voice as another ambient instrument, but he seems satisfied to limit himself to talk-singing over a narrow field of notes. His baritone is quite passable, especially when multi-tracked, but Cooper turns in virtually identical vocal performances each time he works up the minute amount of energy required to sing these parts. Again, much like the percussion, the vocals are perfectly enjoyable when they register, but I would hardly consider these new aspects of Eluvium’s music to be tremendous progress for the composer.
Discussing these songs on their individual merits is not exactly the easiest task. Cooper doesn’t simply gather up whatever songs he’s recorded since his last album, slap them together and call it an album. Similes, like Eluvium’s other albums, is planned and sequenced with obvious consideration. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few pieces of nebulous ambiance, the majority of the material here is a little too homogenous. The aforementioned clicking drums, Cooper’s apprehensive voice, august pianos, and single placid notes wafting in and out; this really could describe a great deal of the material here. To be fair, there are certainly moments when these elements conspire to create something bigger. “The Motion Makes Me Last,” with its lovely chord progression prodded along by impellent yet modest electronic drums, is a quietly touching stunner. But for sheer transcendence, it’s difficult to beat “Making Up Minds”, specifically the point at which the pianos practically double over each other.
Nonetheless, Similes is the work of a gifted composer tentatively, and not entirely successfully, operating outside of his comfort zone. I have no doubt Cooper will do better once he has a more solid idea of how he wants to use these new tools. Until that day comes, we have another solid album of atmospherics to help us go to sleep.